The Man Who Isn’t There

One of President Obama’s aides once described his foreign policy as “leading from behind,” and his critics (such as myself) have derided this instead as “following from in front.” But a recent round of congressional testimony by the president’s cabinet officers reveals that the truth is even worse. Under Obama, the Leader of the Free World is neither in front nor behind. He is vanishing from the scene altogether.

One of the key checks on the president’s power is the cabinet system, which requires top officials in the executive branch to be confirmed by Congress. The Founders knew well, from English history, that the way to limit the unilateral authority of the executive was to make his chief officers answer to the legislature (which is also why Obama has sought to bypass this system by appointing “czars”). As part of its role in offering “advice and consent” on the president’s appointees, Congress requires that they occasionally appear at hearings and answer Congress’s questions—and every once in a while, we actually learn something important from these hearings.

Last week was one of those times. Bill Kristol and Peter Wehner single out the most important information from testimony on the debacle in Benghazi.

Thanks to the congressional testimony of outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey late last week, we know they met with President Obama on Sept. 11 at 5 p.m. in a pre-scheduled meeting, when they informed the president about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The meeting lasted about a half-hour. Mr. Panetta said they spent roughly 20 minutes of the session briefing the president on the chaos at the American Embassy in Cairo and the attack in Benghazi, which eventually cost the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, security personnel Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, and information officer Sean Smith.

Secretary Panetta said the president left operational details, including determination of what resources were available to help the Americans under siege, “up to us.” We also learned that President Obama did not communicate in any way with Mr. Panetta or Gen. Dempsey the rest of that evening or that night. Indeed, Mr. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey testified they had no further contact at all with anyone in the White House that evening—or, for that matter, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Michael Goodwin asks the obvious question: with an America consulate under attack by terrorists, did Obama just go to sleep?

John Bolton singles out another exchange from the same hearings.

Sen. Lindsey Graham asked the day’s most telling question: Who was in charge as the attack progressed? Incredibly, Panetta first responded, “What do you mean, ‘in charge’?” Then, perhaps even more incredibly, he said, “It’s not that simple,” pointing to Ambassador Stevens, “the people on the ground,” as being in charge. Pressed further, Panetta said, “We all were [in charge].” Notwithstanding Panetta’s confusion, the answer is obvious: The president was in charge. Or should have been.

When I say that the Leader of the Free World vanished, I mean it literally: he left the room and made himself scarce. Remember that this is a president who personally selects targets for drone strikes from a “kill list.” It is the same president who had himself photographed in the “situation room” closely monitoring the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. So he knows how to be a hands-on leader, or at least to look like one, when he wants to. But when our embassies in Cairo and Benghazi were threatened, he didn’t want to be involved.

Obama’s approach is not a mere absence of interest. We can say about President Obama’s foreign policy what Walter Lippman said of President Coolidge’s domestic policy: his “genius for inactivity is developed to a very high point. It is far from being an indolent inactivity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity.”

This is what we learned from congressional testimony about Obama’s policy on Syria. Secretary Panetta just revealed that then-CIA Director David Petraeus had developed a plan to provide weapons and support to the liberal opposition in Syria. The plan had the support of both Panetta and Secretary Clinton—but President Obama spiked the idea.

Max Boot adds:

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed that he too was supportive. So if all of the major players on President Obama’s national security team were in favor, why was nothing done?

As Michael Gordon of the New York Times, who first broke the story about Clinton and Petraeus’s support for arming the rebels, put it: “The White House, however, was worried about the risks of getting more deeply involved in the crisis in Syria. And with President Obama in the midst of a re-election bid, the White House rebuffed the plan, rejecting the advice of most of the key members of Mr. Obama’s national security team.”

Paul Mirengoff describes how this was done.

The White House has explained that President Obama nixed Gen. Petraeus’ plan to aid Syrian rebels—which Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and Gen. Dempsey all supported—because the CIA concluded that the weaponry Obama was willing to provide wouldn’t ‘tip the scales’ in favor of the Syrian rebels. This is not to say that the CIA thought the plan developed by Petraeus wouldn’t tip the scales. The general would not recommend, much less develop, a plan deemed ineffective by his own agency.

What happened here seems clear. Obama killed the idea of aiding Syrian rebels through a bureaucratic two-step. First, he refused to approve the level of aid his top advisers wanted. Second, he obtained a finding that the lower level of assistance he was willing to provide wouldn’t be sufficient….

Our president’s tendency will always be to manipulate the facts in favor of inaction. And when the facts can’t be manipulated, as with Benghazi, he seems prepared simply to absent himself until meaningful action is no longer possible.

This is not just the view of Obama’s critics. Aaron David Miller, who approves of this policy, annoints President Obama with the title of “The Avoider,” making him a modern answer to Fabius Maximus, “The Delayer.” Miller sums up the foreign policy message of Obama’s most recent State of the Union address: “The world is no longer America’s problem.”

I recall a lot of people thinking the same thing in the 1990s, when America longed to lay down its burden, take a break from the constant barrage of carping from both enemies and allies, and rest from the exertions of the Cold War. Back then, the circumstances were more pleasant. We felt we could rest because we had triumphed, and we were preoccupied with pursing domestic prosperity, not with enduring stagnation.

But the idea that a global power can withdraw from the world, let events outside our borders drift along as they may, and remain insulated from the consequences is an illusion that was abruptly shattered one morning. Let’s hope the illusion isn’t punctured as traumatically this time around.


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